It has been a good few weeks for racists, populists and rightwing radicals across Europe. A comeback for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in French regional elections. Big gains in Italy for the anti-immigrant Northern League. The Islam-baiting campaign of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has taken his Freedom party to 25% and poll position ahead of June’s general election.
And this weekend, Hungary is facing its biggest political earthquake in 20 years of democracy. On Sunday, the mainstream right and the neofascists are expected to take over the Westminster lookalike parliament on the banks of the Danube. It will be a landslide victory.
The left and the liberals who have run the country for eight years, taking Hungary to the brink of bankruptcy and into the arms of the International Monetary Fund, will be reduced to a rump.
The next prime minister, Viktor Orban, a combative populist, is leading his centre-right Fidesz party to a huge majority, running at more than 60% in the opinion polls. He may even secure a two-thirds majority enabling him to rewrite Hungary’s constitution at will.
But the biggest breakthrough will be for Jobbik, the extremist antisemitic and antigypsy movement “for a better Hungary”, which will win seats in the parliament for the first time and may emerge as the second biggest party.
“It’s a flood that’s coming. Everyone knows it’s coming. We’re just waiting for it. Will we drown or will we swim,” said Pal Tamas, director of Budapest’s Institute of Sociology. “People are trying to use the antifascist argument against Jobbik. But it’s not working. It’s being very poorly received.”
During the past week a rabbi’s home in the capital has been attacked during Passover and a Holocaust memorial was defaced. Budapest Jews have taken to the streets to protest. The country’s large and marginalised Roma and gypsy communities are bracing themselves for a surge in racism and harassment.
“In terms of the gypsy issue, the situation in certain parts of the country is akin to civil war,” said Jobbik’s young leader, Gabor Vona. “Now only drastic interventions are capable of helping . . . we must produce an environment in which gypsy people can return to a world of work, laws and education. And for those unwilling to do so, two alternatives remain: they can either choose to take advantage of the right of free movement granted by the European Union, and leave the country, because we will simply no longer put up with lifestyles dedicated to freeloading or criminality; or, there is always prison.”
Though banned, Jobbik maintains a “Hungarian guard” of paramilitaries who dress in 1940s fascist paraphernalia. Vona wants this “gendarmerie” to police Roma “ghettos”.
“Jobbik is openly legitimising anti-Roma violence. It is openly antisemitic. And it will do very well on Sunday,” said Anton Pelinka, an Austrian political scientist working in Budapest.
Gaspar Miklos Tamas, a liberal and veteran anticommunist dissident, wrote this week that “a national tragedy” was befalling Hungary. “There are many factors, but the most important is the success of the post-fascist Jobbik party.”
Jobbik won 15% of the vote in last summer’s elections to the European parliament and could repeat the trick on Sunday, threatening to push Hungary’s governing socialists into third place.
The breakthrough comes as the far right across Europe becomes more than a fringe presence. In France a fortnight ago, the xenophobic National Front won 11% of the vote in regional elections, with 20% of those who voted for Nicolas Sarkozy three years ago opting for the far right.
Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing coalition coasted to victory in Italian regional elections last week, but the real winner was Umberto Bossi’s Northern League which captured the regions of Piedmont and Veneto and made big inroads in the working-class areas of northern Italy, normally a stronghold of the left.
Ahead of the Dutch elections, Wilders appears to be going from strength to strength, while later this month in Austria, the far-right mother of 10, Barbara Rosenkranz, whose husband publishes a neo-Nazi newsletter, will contest the Austrian presidency with the support of the country’s bestselling tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung.
In Belgium the extreme right separatist Vlaams Belang party has been joined by mainstream rightwing parties, so secessionists now enjoy almost 50% support among Flemish voters, according to the polls.
A conventional explanation for the breakthrough of the far right sees the success as a protest vote, waxing and waning depending on the performance of the mainstream parties of the centre-right and left.
“This is not such a big victory for Jobbik and Fidesz, more a result of the failures of the previous government and its incredible incompetence,” said Julius Horvat, head of European studies at Budapest’s Central European University.
But analysts detect a more durable pattern, particularly in western Europe, entrenching the far right as an established presence in politics.
“This is no longer a sudden surge that then vanishes. The far right has become a permanent fixture in our societies now,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in European radical movements at the Paris thinktank the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
In France, Le Pen has been a major factor in politics for 25 years. In Austria, the far right has been a key player since the late Joerg Haider hijacked the political agenda in the 1990s.
Today in Rome, the “post-fascist” National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini held a centre-right conference on whether Italy should be transformed into a presidential system modelled on France. This week Bossi held a “summit” with Berlusconi to push his agenda of federalising Italy, meaning his wealthy northern power base stops subsidising the south.
The Northern League has been in government in Italy for seven of the past nine years. In Denmark the far right has long been propping up a conservative government in parliament, and in Switzerland it is the strongest party. The far right leaders are now central and not peripheral players in their national politics.
Political scientists note that while there is much talk of “neofascism”, in western Europe some of the most successful parties are rooted less in 1930s European fascism than in disaffection with mainstream conservativism. Whether out of opportunism or conviction, many have shifted to the far right to exploit the potent issues of immigration and Islam and to broaden their electoral base. This has occurred in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.
“What’s new is that some of the conservatives have moved to the radical right, rejecting multiculturalism, Islam and immigration,” said Camus. “It’s . . . a radical right that is disconnected from the traditions of European fascism.”
In colonising the far-right territory, these former conservatives are winning over traditional leftwing voters. Where previously their powerbase was made up from small businesses, shopkeepers, and lower middle class, they are now making inroads into the working-class vote among those hostile to immigration and worried about job losses.
In Hungary and in the young democracies of central Europe, the situation is different.
“In post-communist Europe, it’s the old-fashioned far right. In Western Europe, it’s the postmodern far right,” said Pelinka. “In central Europe it’s still the old enemies–the Jews, the gypsies, the national minorities.”
If wealthy societies of western Europe are seized by new phobias, in the east old prejudices die hard. While 55% of Hungarians do not want Romas as neighbours, half are opposed to a homosexual or lesbian next door and 22% are averse to having a Slovak, Romanian or a Jew for a neighbour,according to a poll by Pal Tamas, leading Hugarian sociologists.